SLIPSTREAM: Making the Familiar Strange (Part 1)

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By Dana Schultz

“Telling me a piece should make me ‘feel strange, like living in the late twentieth century’ doesn’t do a lot for me, mainly because the twentieth century didn’t make me feel strange.” – Jon Hansen, “I Want My 20th Century Schizoid Art,” Feeling Very Strange.

A common goal of anthropologists is to “make the strange familiar and the familiar strange.” The authors we admire most also achieve this goal. An effective author not only makes the unique circumstances of their story seem personal for their audience (a.k.a. familiar), the author then turns the audience’s assumptions to distance the reader into discomfort and/or awe (making the familiar strange). Likewise the best short story authors, and arguably best novelists as well, cause readers to infer details that cannot fit in the narrative. By allowing readers to imagine beyond what is given, the stories themselves become substantially more interactive and personal to the reader. It may come as no surprise that one of my favorite short story anthologies is called Feeling Very Strange, and that many of the stories contained in that anthology manage to make situations appear at once ordinary and extraordinary.

feelstrangeLast January, when my creative writing Professor first assigned Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology, slipstream quickly joined the works of Oliver Sacks and world geography on my list of topics that I adore but understand little about. Over the years atlases and Oliver Sacks’ Anthropologist on Mars have given me an array of stories and facts, but that doesn’t mean I can contribute diagnoses to Lisa Sander’s column or even find my way out of a grocery store using orienteering. As you can tell, there’s a noticeable gap between my abstract and practical knowledge.

From the hazy, noncommittal editor’s note on slipstream’s definition to the diverse and soaring stories, Feeling Very Strange caused  the old familiar excitement to grab hold of me: the thrill that I was about to get into something way over my head. And once again that abstract-to-practical-knowledge gap appeared: I’m excited to talk about slipstream and lack the concrete terms to talk about it with.

But hey, I’m not alone! No one, not even Feeling Very Strange’s editors, James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel, feel comfortable giving slipstream a definition. Feeling Very Strange’s editor’s note is titled “Slipstream: The Genre That Isn’t.” The ambivalence is framed as respectful to the anthology’s contributors, “For most of our contributors these stories are just stories. If they feel pressed to give them a label they may use ‘metafiction’ or ‘magic realism’ or ‘fabulation’… Definition does not matter to many of them, and that is a warning to us not to put too much faith in definitions (pg xi).” When you find that the slipstream’s explanation is not helpful even in the editor’s note, you know you have a problem. The editors claim slipstream is a feeling not a genre, similar to how horror can be felt in many genres. The feeling slipstream gives is cognitive dissonance, a sort of psychological discomfort the editors and Bruce Sterling agree are especially relevant for the 20th and 21st century. As a quick explanation, cognitive dissonance is when your mind can’t figure out which way is up or down, so you just pick a way and pretend the confusion does not exist. Psychologists claim that humans need to have consistency, so when ideas flip our expecations we do our best to reason it out or ignore the conflict.

lightsuffererJonathan Lethem’s Light and the Sufferer belongs to the anthology Feeling Very Strange, and is a gold standard for snappy and discomforting short fiction. The story begins as an urban drama, all signs pointing to urban stereotypes and narrative realism. Then about ten pages in, aliens called Sufferers appear. Tension builds as readers reel, is this an apocalypse story? Will there be an intergalactic battle? But no, the Sufferer ultimately plays an ambivalent role: at once active and inactive, essential and inconsequential to the story. The Sufferer does not communicate with the characters, so characters interpret the Sufferer’s purpose based on experience. The Sufferer is a vigilante. A villain. A crack addict. Ultimately, it is the ambivalence of the Sufferer that makes the story compelling. How is that possible? Because the reader must interpret, which in turn makes the story personal.

In essence Lethem drives readers to ask themselves difficult fundamental questions (How do you conceptualize real people in relation to yourself? How do you answer a question that you can never know the definitive answer to?) through a supernatural metaphor (How do you conceptualize the Sufferer? How do you come to terms with your answer when you can never really know what the Sufferer is about?). But is the strategy that Lethem uses, blending realism with the supernatural, altogether new? Or even new in the slightest? In his Electric Literature blog article “Oh Slippery Slipstream: Who Is the Weirdest Genre of Them All?” Ryan Britt points out, “I hear that the first super-popular book in the western world features dudes who can turn into burning bushes. Historically, ‘weirdness’ has always been hip.”

solomonIn Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon characters experience visions, see ghosts, and create potions all in a 20th century world. Morrison doesn’t jump over into Harry Potter and make clear that magic exists. Rather, there is a sense of superstition that crosses over into the supernatural and then, like taking a double take and realizing the cyclops vanished, crosses back again. The reader does indeed experience cognitive dissonance, the ingredient Kessel and Kelly propose as the key literary effect of slipstream. A quick explanation, psychologists claim that humans need to have consistency, so when ideas upset our world concept we do our best to reason it out or ignore the conflict. Cognitive dissonance is when your expectations are inverted, and you’re mind needs to either push the conflict into the subconscious or come to a new synthesis to remove the dissonance. Was that vision Hagar talks to an actual ghost? Morrison doesn’t say. Without the author’s guidance, the reader is free to interpret to form their own synthesis. Morrison flat out overturns the reader’s expectations when she describes an utterly impossible scene after a hundred pages of more-or-less realism. Nailing our false sense of security into the coffin, the speaker emphasizes that the scene is not a dream. Here’s what happens: the protagonist witnesses his mother getting smothered alive by garden flowers. The flowers are literally attacking her, growing larger by the second and bending over her while she laughs at bats them back. The protagonist watches dumbstruck, and when he recounts the incident to a friend he claims it was a dream. But it wasn’t. Morrison made a clear effort to say so. And still the reader finds himself wanting to side with the dream thing. After all, what about those one hundred previous pages of realism? Morrison’s Song of Solomon contributed to Bruce Sterling’s coinage of slipstream in 1989: it’s literature that breaks the narrative realism barrier.

But who ever said literature needs to be narrative realism? Why then are Lord of the Rings and Watership Down on the classics shelf? Literature to me is writing that informs culture- writing that says something new through symbolism and character growth. Morrison’s Song of Solomon achieved that, and it did not need the label “slipstream” to do so. And honestly, I doubt that authors in the slipstream anthology need the label either. I checked the websites of two of my favorite writers, Kelly Link and Aimee Bender, both anthologized in Feeling Very Strange. On the “About the Author” page, a mention of slipstream was nowhere to be found. But I do have to say thank goodness Kelly and Kessel provided this anthology to put Kelly Link, Aimee Bender, and so many other talented and daring writers together. If slipstream achieved one thing it placed writers of a “common sentiment” together. In this light, we make progress by thinking of slipstream’s description more in terms of a thesaurus than a dictionary. Instead of a solid definition for slipstream, in the anthology you get a list of authors (the “similes” of this metaphor) to learn about in relation to each other. Look up Kelly Link in this hypothetical thesaurus, and you’ll get George Saunders, M. Rickert, and Michael Chabon to expand your reading arsenal with. Writers of a “common sentiment,” yet far from interchangeable. Thesauruses, after all, provide approximations of words, and those approximations are not always a close match. “Hands on” and “everyday” appear to both be similes for “practical,” but each applies only in certain contexts.

At first the idea of slipstream fascinated me. The noncommittal, barely tacit agreement purported by Kelly and Kessel that slipstream’s definition is supposed to be confusing made slipstream somehow attractive to me, as if being interested in it made me smart. But then I read Ryan Britt’s article, and I came to my senses. I still haven’t wrapped my head around the definition of slipstream. What’s so great about something unexplained? Wouldn’t it be better to forget definitions and just appreciate a good story for what it is, a good story? Ryan Britt suggests that slipstream might just be a marketing tool, a way to justify “slipping” more genre elements into the mainstream. And as for cognitive dissonance? Perhaps calling it slipstream is more of a way to solve a critic’s cognitive dissonance of what writing style they can call “good” or “bad”. Because the stories in Feeling Very Strange are good.

So it’s an even playing field, everyone’s confused about slipstream and has been confused ever since Bruce Sterling coined the term in 1989. Slipstream’s influence on writing is forming but not yet defined. We will explore this issue further in my next blog which will appear in a couple of weeks.
To be continued.


Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology. Ed. James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel (2006)

Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison (1977)

posted by R. T. Smith

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The Official Plea to Bring Back Traditional Courtship in Fiction

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content-logobeach-readBY MADDIE SCHAFFER

I’m lying on my stomach, starting to get that prickly needle feeling in my back from a lack of SPF.  The swarms of kids squealing and splashing are just white noise as I chew my way through yet another novel, It Ends with Us by Colleen Hoover, that falls under the category “romance.” As it’s summer, and I still have a few weeks before my pleasure reading is replaced with mundane textbooks written by professors adorned with multiple PhD’s trying to make statistical analysis funny, this is my choice of literature.

I’m fairly certain that I am not the only one who enjoys an easy, fantastical read when lying poolside. One that lets you forget you’re not on your own secluded island being fanned by a well-sculpted pool boy. When I say “easy read” this is no slight against the piece itself, the opposite in fact. When a book is so well written that the words on the page transform into a motion picture in my head, I begin to think I may have found something itends-bookworthwhile.


Unfortunately, the movie is interrupted when I find myself too preoccupied with hiding what I’m reading, than I am actually reading. I begin feeling uncomfortable, sprawling my hand across the page, and even tilting the book at ridiculous angles as though the person four lounge chairs next to me could read the same words I am.


Since when has the category “romance” been interchangeable with “soft porn”? If I missed that press release, please, let me know and I will take back this whole rant.

I find it so frustrating to be reading a fantastic story, one where I have become so invested in the character that I have no choice other than to finish it in one sitting, for reasons of sanity, and then feel like I am invading that character’s private life on a level I am not comfortable with. The author has made me a peeping tom as I’m reading the specifics of how John Doe is sticking his ding-dong into Jane Doe’s hoo-ha. Can I just get a rabbit euphemism or something, please? I am not naïve, and I am perfectly aware that with love and romance come sexual interactions. Why though, has it become necessary to interrupt the flow of the story with uncomfortably detailed and vivid scenes?

Of course, these scenes and depictions have their place, but the explicit displays of them are not needed in the true romance novel. There is something to be said for modesty, and a lot to be said for needing to say little.

The media promotes sex constantly, for the simple fact it sells. It’s use of celebrities in ads for makeup, movies, cars, even perfume commercials are so insane as to basically say, “wear this perfume and you’ll get laid.” For example, take the axe commercial that starts by panning over a woman, sparkling with perspiration, sporting simply a bra and underpants, performing a shot-put and a pole jump to launch herself through the window towards a man spraying axe. Entertaining…maybe. Necessary…probably not. Compare this with the Ralph Lauren ad for the scent “Romance” where a man and a woman gallivant around on white horses through lush fields, gorgeous locks flowing in the wind. The ads are like night and day, similar to the old romance versus the new.

The easy sell of sex is exemplified by the author of 50 Shades of Grey, El James, raking in a meager $95 million for her dominance trilogy[1]. I would place a hefty bet (not as hefty as Ms. James could place) to say this has influenced what writers are putting in their stories, and they are clearly feeling the pressure to appease the public. Why can’t there be a happy medium? One where writers allude to the sexual interactions, but leave it to the reader to play the rest out in their head? Keeping up with the times is one thing, but it can be done in a fashion that leaves room for some imagination on the reader’s part, which has the potential to be even more erotic than what can be put in words. I know I might be listening to Paul Simon in a time everyone is listening to Kanye, but hear me out.

Romance, by definition, according to Merriam-Webster, is:
1) A medieval tale based on legend, chivalric love and adventure, or the supernatural
2) A prose narrative treating imaginary characters involved in events remote in time or place and usually heroic, adventurous, or mysterious
3) A love story especially in the form of a novel

Chivalric love is in the definition, people! Books are where we go to find chivalry; a word linked to knights on horseback (knights…shining armor…sweeping off feet…see where I’m going here?). The one place where we think it can’t die since they can so easily take you prideandpback centuries into an entirely different era. What will people think of our generations’ love lives if hundreds of years from now they pick up 50 Shades of Grey? I have a feeling people won’t be looking at our literature and lusting over the romance like we do for stories like Romeo and Juliet. Instead, they’ll probably be thinking we should all be put in padded white rooms for even being able to conjure up something like The Red Room.

Can we go back to the time of Pride and Prejudice that follows the exciting and alluring courtship of Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy and forget the ravenous, animalistic behavior we find in “romance” novels like 50 Shades of Grey? Kudos to the authors for their ability to create images and descriptions I could only hope to one day be able to do, but can’t it be describing the way he opens doors for her instead of her blouse? 50 might be a few shades too many.

I am more confused why books with such great, unique story lines, like Colleen Hoover’s It Ends With Us, feel the need to dilute their important messages with these scenes when there are so many other ways to convey to the reader the attraction between characters. I 50-shadesdon’t want to feel guilty for what I am reading, and I would also like my artistic license as a reader back, and have the author leave some things to the imagination.


By Maddie Schaffer

posted by R T Smith

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We Live in Blank by Lesley Wheeler

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copiaIt’s September in an election year, so while students in classrooms argue about poetry with surprising heat, my electronic screens are occupied by one political candidate jokingly suggesting the assassination of another. An African-American boy was shot and killed, this time in Columbus, while holding a BB gun that looked all too real. Bombs just exploded in Manhattan. There’s no refuge from violence and anxiety, not even on campus or in the nearby woods. Fawns leap past me on morning walks, but their babyish spots are fading fast.

So let me make a pitch for getting your news from poems, at least some of the time. Erika Meitner, a poet who’s especially good at braiding together strands of thought and feeling and information, will be reading at Washington and Lee University at 4:30 pm in the Hillel House on Wednesday, September 28th. Meitner will also visit my poetry workshop, where we’re pondering her latest book, Copia. The title means something like “plenty,” especially, in rhetoric, an abundance of language. I heard Meitner at the 2016 Virginia Festival of the Book and was moved by her poetry’s eloquence about the too-muchness of contemporary life: big box stores, airports, suburban tract housing, urban decay. Meitner directs the graduate program in Creative Writing at Virginia Tech, just down the road from me, and location deepened the recognition I felt reading her work: her landscapes are not so different from mine.

Even before I’d read Copia, however, I knew Meitner’s work from Shenandoah. A year and a half ago, I assigned poems from volume 63, number 2 and asked students to identify their favorites. A few chose Meitner’s “Continuation”. The poem begins as if extending a long, difficult, but intimate conversation:

And the neighbor’s daughter shows my son
the way her father let her hold his gun,

with bullets in it.  She was on Adderall,
and now Ritalin, and they’re only in

Kindergarten but my son doesn’t much
like her—

Like many poems in Copia, “Continuation” establishes a sense of danger immediately, while observing, too, how danger coexists with daily life’s relentless trivia. The speaker, wearing pajamas and clutching a coffee mug, routinely waits with her son and his gun-brandishing classmate for the “wheezing” schoolbus. Once they climb aboard, the bus proceeds down a street called “Heartwood/ Crossing, though the sign says Xing// as the whole name won’t fit. This cross-/ hatch, this target…” Meitner’s a metonymic poet, proceeding by association, but risky intersections pervade her verse.

meitner-photoContiguities, cycles, repetition: the speaker’s son, the one who waits for the bus, likes a TV show called “Finding Bigfoot” in which a team seeks but never conclusively finds Sasquatch, the so-called missing link. The program arrives over and over at a supremely tentative conclusion, “that bigfoot could definitely live in// ____________.  We live in blank.” Does that mean a) we’re like, really nowhere; b) all places are interchangeable; c) Sasquatch is immanent, the presiding spirit of American life; or d) all of the above? Like the news, this poem presents a range of disturbing problems without clear answers.

In the spirit of irresolution, “Continuation” also disobeys Chekhov’s precept. The gun, that is, that Meitner hangs on the wall of Act One never goes off. The two children in the first line, despite their frightening play with a parent’s weapon, remain whole. Perhaps the gun is fired elsewhere, injuring some other child. Well, we know it is.

“Continuations” is not a consoling poem. But there is good human company in watching Meitner make order out of colossally bad news. I may be safe today, but everyone’s neighbor is armed and medicated. We all live at a crossroads, a target, and Meitner stresses that, for ill and potentially for good, our alternate universes are continuous.

Lesley Wheeler’s most recent collection is Radioland.  Her poems and essays appear in Ecotone, Crazyhorse, Poetry and other magazines.  She teaches at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia and blogs at

[posted by R T Smith]

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Meditations on Grad School, by Annie Persons

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In her poem “Hashem,” Leah Green reminds us: “all there is to do is offer our own dust, / held together in the holding, / and, small lunged, / live our lives breathing.” With those words in mind, I feel confident in saying that my first few weeks as a graduate student in Creative Writing at Virginia Commonwealth University have been an exercise in breathing.

In many ways, my academic workload as an MFA student mirrors my academic workload as an English major and creative writing minor at Washington and Lee. I’m taking an English literature class; I’m interning for a highly selective literary magazine; I’m a teaching assistant for a large lecture course; and, oh yeah, I’m taking a poetry workshop. During the first week of classes, I re-entered my undergraduate, workaholic mindset. It was energizing to be back in an intellectually stimulating environment, to be moving at a fast pace again.

annieThen I had my first workshop. It was a Monday night. The cicadas were muted by an overzealous air conditioner. My ten classmates and I sat around a large, wooden table. A dual mood of anxiety masked by nonchalance saturated the room. I realized that I hadn’t been in a workshop in over a year, and my breath caught.

Then my professor, Gregory Donovan, started class, and I exhaled. We spent nearly three hours peeling back layers (and layers) of Norman Dubie’s “After Three Photographs of Brassai.” It was during that initial class, before even reading my peers’ work, that I noticed something significant about my graduate studies in creative writing: everyone in the room wanted to be there more than they wanted to be anywhere else. Everyone cared about poetry, a lot.

On top of enjoying our discussion, this realization about my classmates was more satisfying than the best adult beverage a graduate student can afford. It made me I remember why I’m getting my MFA. I’m here I to engage with my professors, my classmates, and the work of other skillful, experienced poets. And I’m here to write.

Whether you’re studying or creating it, poetry is an art of attention. In our discussion of the tension between lyric and narrative poetry during our second workshop, Professor Donovan quoted David Baker saying that the lyric is “a moment in time that arrests time.” Baker’s assertion captures what I believe makes poetry essential. Poetry is what makes me both radically present and radically connected to myself and others.

Now, every time I’ve felt swept up in the busyness of school, I’ve tried to slow down and recenter myself around poetry, around attentiveness–attention to detail and to the big picture. That reminder prompts me to ask myself: How can my time with students help me be a deeper thinker, feeler, and communicator? How can my paper on seventeenth-century colonial narratives make me a better observer and critic of the issues facing society today? How can reading Blackbird submissions help me become a more discerning reader and writer? How, in group discussions of those submissions, can I help put the important work of other writers out into the world?

A reminder to focus on poetry is a reminder to focus on what keeps me truly alive. I’m so grateful to be in a space where I can breathe easily.
by Annie Persons (posted by R T Smith)

Annie Persons is a first-year poet in Virginia Commonwealth University’s MFA in Creative Writing program, where she works as a copyediting intern for Blackbird. She is also a 2015 graduate of Washington and Lee University, where she was proud to serve as the managing editor of Shenandoah. Originally from Atlanta, she still considers Lexington, VA to be her home.


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“Denotation and the Mind at Play”

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woodcock Although I lack the commitment to neo-platonism and romanticism that leads readers and writers to believe that the poem on the page is inevitably (as Ben Lerner suggests in The Hatred of Poetry)   a failure, a lesser poem (you can’t say “thing” here) than the poem in the mind (which would provide the reader with a remarkable and sublime transcendent experience), I do believe the construction of a sound, engaging, vital poem involves a variety of ingredients, some semantic, some psychological, and it might be a few ticks short of life-transforming but still be an amazing and moving experience.  These ingredients include energy, concentration/ reflection, craft, timing, patience, passion and luck.  I know these categories are not an exclusive list and that there’s some overlap, but I don’t want to exhaust myself before I even get going.  I also realize that “luck” is the wild card here and might lead some to say that it’s the muse by another name or “divine inspiration/intervention,” maybe even the devil’s whisper.  For me, these other factors create a field of frisson that might just add up to inspiration, but I don’t believe that a poem is constructed in some theater of the mind where it is ideal and “genuine” (capable of transcendence), but sours and spoils and diminishes in the process of transcription.  It’s easy to see why I’m not of that party once you know that I don’t believe poems can “happen” and then be netted by a human before actually being composed, hammered, kissed and cussed out of the individual poet’s experiences and bag of tricks, or that they often “come to” the poet and are written down verbatim.  I reckon that poems are usually conjured touch by touch as each is tested, tasted, weighed, each word conversing with and  influencing the word that will follow and interrogating the ones that came before. No free lunch, as it were.  Is this ALL conscious?  Probably not, but much of it is.  Look at Moore’s earlier (1927) and then later, shorter versions of “Poetry” or Pound’s earlier version of “In the Station of the Metro.”  Hours in the making, most likely.

Lord, that was windy, but I do remember that even in Bede’s story of Caedmon, the herdsman adds to the poem he’s been given by someone ethereal (quidam) before he performs it for his tribe, so even the great early model of ex machina or ex divina is compromised, amended, sweated, edited.  This belief has caused me some trouble, as a close friend, A, used to insist that another friend, B, had the soul of a poet and would be a poet in the most important sense even if B never wrote a single poem.  Seems she had the soul of a poet, and I suspected that I was being told that B was a better writer than me, even without doing the work.  To that I always replied some version of “aw, skunk cabbage.”  Poets are people who make poems, and most of the time we’re revving our engines, trying to be active and receptive till our internal stick rubbing raises smoke, kindles a spark or two in the tinder, then flame.  You’ve heard the affable cocktail drinker who says, “I’m sure I have a good novel in me, if I just had the time.”  An ultrasound exam will reveal no such item in him.  The same for poems.  For many examples of writers giving some insight into the earthly process of making poems, I recommend Brian Brodeur’s blog How a poem happens.

So I believe poems don’t have to reflect some never-quite-seeable but desperately-striven-for ideal from out yonder.  Most writers (but perhaps not the wanna-be poetalking maneuverers) I know and read would claim more agency, more trial and error and less hocus pocus.  An impulse, some associations, consideration of possible forms or formats, a tune in the head, an attitude, whiz of an errant arrow passing, some dramatic decisions and plenty of more subtle ones – these all help the brain and fingers get some lines onto the page or the monitor.  And then rub those sticks together with wild patience.  They have to be worked, wrested, wrestled in different ways and degrees by different poets or by the same poet on different occasions.  I’m a believer that most of the good writing is rewriting, and a substantial amount of it is simple deletion.  For some, perhaps my view implies that the inspiration  and genuineness just happen more slowly than the idealist seems to suggest, that idealist whose disappointment at the worldly manifestation is at the heart of Lerner’s’s The Hatred of Poetry.  But I don’t think it’s that reducible.  After all, craft is notoriously slow to develop and luck as hard to recognize as it is to attract.

brendanI’m not sure about “things that are important beyond all this fiddle,” to borrow from Moore’s 1927 version of “Poetry,” but I am certain that the poem below passes all my tests for the genuine and deserves better than this treatment as an “exhibit.”  “Pondycherry” rides a series of binaries – clarity and mystery, observation and imagination, the vernacular and the erudite.  It also tells a little story about the craft of the recent past and longer arc of history and sings a song with a formal feel, but no binding formality.  Stanza length, line length, accentual pattern, and the interplay between folk slang and standard vocabulary fortify this reliable, candid, yet bemused “mind at play.”  It’s not a political poem, but we can sense something of the narrator’s value system in his appreciation of skill, economy, “lovely” sensations, not to mention conservation and preservation.  It’s not a confessional poem, but the poet’s interplay of candor and mischief suggests he’s engaged in work that matters to him too much to be mere labor.  Furthermore, the pleasure of surprising and satisfying language accompanies any subtle element of wry sourness (which might “pucker you permanent”) in the stanzas.  And it’s a poem aware of and sensitive to mystery.

Pondycherry      by Brendan Galvin

The way some people sing for themselves
on the drive home, I kept repeating
“pondycherry” out loud, one of those
trivial chunks that pops up,
tangled with the mind’s sargassum,

and wondering where I got it, arrived at
a satiny red-brown wood that came
naturally hollowed from the mill, something
a craftsman might use in his furniture,

an elderly wood-turner and caner of chairs
who worked out of a storefront, its floor
lovely to the nostrils and eyes
with sawdust and woodcurl.

He’d be a local repository who still used
“honeywicket” for flicker, “timberdoodle”
for woodcock. He’d look at
a yard-sale chair, its seat busted
through like a basketball hoop, and say,

“That wood’s pondycherry, used to be
a stand of it the far side of Higgins Pond.
A pleasure to work with, but the fruit
would pucker you permanent.”

Pondicherry, the dictionary gives me,
a former province of French India.
But why should I choose between denotation
and the mind at play, or reject another
hint, from the depths under a word,
that I’ve lived other places, other lives?

(Habitat: New and Selected Poems (LSU, 2005)
National Book Award Finalist

The poem opens with an admission that some might find a little embarrassing – “I say this word over and over like a charm, even though it rose arbitrarily from the mind’s midden.”  It’s an earthy but tricky opening.  “Some people” might do X, I do the quirkier Y.  Yet the narrator shows himself to be kind to those “some,” though with a difference.  He’s using his combination of whim and necessity as an instrument of inquiry, and he employs it to conjure a pleasing fiction, which he sings not just for himself, but for readers, as it’s a fiction with a real life.  The “chunks” that “pop up” may sound inconsequential and messy, but Galvin allows them to do some elegant work, performance, bring to life the Emersonian assertion that words are fossils.

I’m not going to explicate this poem sniff by sniff, but I can’t resist pointing out the pleasure it both recognizes and delivers, the observed or invented  specifics that place us in the world of ponds, fruit, woodgrain, a craftsman, everything admirably local and mysteriously organized as a yard sale.

It’s hard to write a poem so confident and receptive and then shift at the end to nearly obscure information and a far-reaching speculation, but Galvin can do it because he doesn’t change keys, keeps that suggestion of a wink and a grin.  The appearance of “Pondicherry” to mesh with the earlier “pondycherry” creates just the kind of “feat of association” that Frost felt poetry depended upon, and there’s Emerson in that penultimate line and in that sentence the refusal to choose, perhaps between two roads “that equally lay.”

That magpie gathering and whim (which Emerson suggests we carve or paint on our lintels) lead to a serious question, the kind that should be savored rather than pursued for a reductive answer.  On one level, the question is not solved, the poem not resolved, but on others it hovers there before us, interrogating us back while not denying us “the fun in how you say a thing.”  Serious mischief and a sassy tongue.  Who can resist it?  But is it an ideal poem, transporting and rendering the receptive reader altogether changed?  That’s not even the discussion that attracts me.  Instead of being transported, I’d rather be more fiercely rooted to this authentic place underfoot.  So: “a record of a failure” in Lerner’s terms?  “Pondycherry” is an artfully made, surprising and provocative experience, and I’ll take that over either version of Ms. Moore’s “Poetry” most any day.  It haunts me, but does it elevate me to an ideal realm?  Let the philosophers have a go at that one, if they can take their eyes off that honeywicket.  I like this realm, invigorated, just fine.  Now I’m wavering and would not resist the suggestion that this poem is, among other things, sublime.

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The Hatred of Poetry, Part 2

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2. “I dwell in Possibility”

I’m most likely to feel animosity toward poetry when I’ve just spent some time with the New Yorker or a finalist for some national prize, and maybe envy is part of the equation, but not when I don’t have an eligible book (and, I admit) I never send poems to the New Yorker.  My hackles generally rise when I feel that the work in question is too inconsequential or cryptic, when the language or ideas seem flippant or the mischief isn’t serious.  Flannery O’Connor said that, due to time constraints (mortality, in her case), she couldn’t read everything that came before her, and her guiding principle was that she stopped reading when she felt she could do so without experiencing a sense of loss.  That test seems to me legitimate and fair, and I employ it in all my reading but student work.  Consequently, I see a lot more heads of poems than tails.


Maybe I’m also employing the ideas in Moore’s shorter version of “Poetry,” but I don’t think in terms of “perfect contempt,” and “genuine” seems too contested a category.  I keep going back to that earlier version with its imaginary gardens and real toads, partly because the metaphor does more for me than the position paper language of the later poem, and in such a compact package the shift from “I” to “one” suggests a kind of bloodless and unenthusiastic stance.  This, by the way, doesn’t mean that I don’t see how the two versions work as a pair in dialogue.

Frost said that, if it is a wild thing, it is a poem, and Williams wrote that poems are machines made of words.  When I apply these criteria as equally valuable for assessing a poem, my mind opens up, and I can read with some delight.  The machinery has more to do with craft, reason, convention, coherence, hospitality, while the wildness refers to the forces of resistance to these.  Left brain and right, lattice and honeysuckle vine,  poets who rely on the dynamic between the two make me feel invited back into the long conversation of poetry, with all its passionate understanding, formal accomplishment and serious mischief.

One of the mysteries of Lerner’s book (along with the aforementioned disclaimer near the end — see my first post on this subject) is his willingness to blame the unpopularity of poetry on a few species of poems (the mediocre poems written for inaugurations, slamfest poems which on the page look trite or melodramatic) which are doomed to  fall short once removed from the very specific audience and context of their immediate purpose.  And he attributes it, as well, to the “more than three hundred thousand websites devoted to poetry.”  He also has a go (via Mark Edmundson) at Baraka’s World Trade Center poem, but this does lead him to an important discovery, which would have made a great place to begin this book: “the haters should stop pretending any poem ever successfully spoke for everyone.”  If he had admitted this before he started writing the book, he could have saved himself and his readers plenty of slogging through slanted discussions of Plato, McGonagall’s bridge disaster, Caedmon’s epiphany.  This is the heart of the matter with poetry, as with omelets, pets, wedding dresses, vanity license tags and even translations of sacred texts: there are no poems that satisfy all readers, as we bring overlapping but still unique natures to the reading of them.  There’s no one “audience” for poetry but “audiences.”  I’ll admit that I’m not so certain that there aren’t poems which are universally disdained, but even McGonagall’s travesty probably doesn’t qualify.  The buffet nature of the canon is its saving grace.


If you have an axe to grind – whether because poetry seems too much like something made by mankind and not divine in origin, or because your beliefs about craft, gravity, levity, concreteness, figurative language, thrift, tonal modulation, erudition, vernacular and so on are not dominant in the broader poetry community (or, God help us, po-biz), I can say only “take heart.”  Despite his convictions about the inadequacies of poetry, Lerner seems to find poems which offer him significant satisfactions.  And so do I, when I search vigilantly.  I, too, dwell in possibility, if only because if you put 100 poets to work at 100 type writers for 100 years, something beautiful and new and supple, consequential and witty without being cute is sure to surface.  Even from 100 graduate workshops.  I can sustain my winged hope enough to accept the challenge and take up my pencil when something I see or think sparks up a phrase and the faint tones of a distant music (not “unheard,” but elusive, partial, beckoning) touch my imagination.  I take out my axe and knife, gouge, mallets, awl, chisels, rasp and begin to carve words from the silence, and the work, which can be Sisyphean, can also be rewarding.  (After all, Camus says one may imagine Sisyphus happy.)  True, my relationship with poetry, as reader and writer, resembles Twain’s position on smoking: easiest thing in the world to give it up, I’ve done it thousands of times.  And I, too, dislike it, but it refines my engagement with the world and my own many selves.  A good enough reason to get up most mornings.  As for the divine messenger, I keep an extra coffee cup in the cupboard, and an extra whisky tumbler, as well, but I’m not holding my breath.

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The Hatred of Poetry: Ben Lerner’s Book, in Two Posts

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The Hatred of Poetry: Ben Lerner’s book, in Two Posts


1. “I, too, dislike it”: Poems Doomed to Fail?

  1. “I dwell in Possibility,” “the thing with feathers”

1.”I, too….”

[Before I begin to examine the exhibit under scrutiny, I should say that I’ve been writing and studying poems for over forty years and have found plenty that stimulate, provoke, surprise and nourish me every time I read them, but I add fewer poems to my private anthology every year because I find the new and newer new and newest new poems delightful and instructive less often than I used to.  Some of this is laziness, some is due to an inertia that can accompany my age, some my resistance to techniques (especially involving the newly holy fragment) and varieties of poems that have never thrilled me but which seem in our less patient world to run rampant.  Some of them are too easy, too feeble for my taste, and others are too demanding.  The result of this dissatisfaction has been almost devastating for me, so much that I spent a substantial part of the first decade of this century concentrating on writing fiction to escape the many unpalatable but loudly acclaimed poems of those years.  But in the end, I was not much soothed.  After all, I make my living as an editor and teacher, and I have to confront new directions daily.  I bite the bullet and occasionally get a surprising reward.  Although I have not given up writing verses to write fictional paragraphs, as a close friend of mine did five or six years ago, I keep thinking I should.  How’s that for a complicating notion to take to the writing desk when you’re trying to find a word with both the sound and the implications that you think a stanza needs or the key to make a closing line click shut with meaningful resonance?]

Ben Lerner fashions/assembles his 86-page essay/booklet The Hatred of Poetry (FSG, 2016) around the 1967 version of Marianne Moore’s poem “Poetry,” which is a radically whittled down revision of a delightful but less aesthetically radical poem of the same name from 1927.  Both poems begin with the somewhat challenging, “I, too, dislike it,” and Lerner reaches back to Plato and beyond to explain that both those who know quite a lot about poetry and those who know very little are pretty much united in this hostile attitude.  The gist of it is that (if you believe Shelley, Spenser, Keats and others who value grandiose claims about poems translating the actual to the ideal and the reverse) a substantial old school claims that poetry is somehow outside the realm of human knowing.  It’s a feeling or light in the soul or mind, though no actual poems on a page live up to that goal.  From conception to execution they fade, which is a bad thing . . . though not for me, who believes that execution and conception are intertwined, a trellis and vine arrangement, if the trellis were also growing.  Poems, I think, I hope, come into being through careful cultivation – maybe fast, maybe slowly – but not in a magician’s or angel’s flash of light.  Like “the news from Tunis,” the mystery can be grasped.

From page to page Lerner discusses how much better the “unheard melodies” are than the shoddy human productions, and I think he goes badly (and willfully) astray and askew in prosecuting this case.  And so does he, sort of, for he admits, ten pages from the end of the essay, that the genre he’s been renouncing can “be funny or lovely or offer solace or courage or inspiration” and that the case he’s been making “doesn’t have much to say about good poems in all their variety.”  It’s almost as if he’s stamped in 48 pt. letters over the last page: OR NOT!

But Lerner is convinced that two other considerations are more important: the age-old case for the weakness of mimesis, and why the general population says that poetry is useless or indecipherable or not real work or just what’s left over after a mortal gets through clumsily fiddling with a divine model.  For him, “a poem is always a record of failure.”  But a poem is not a record; its conception is likely foggy and fragmented, volcanic magma, and it comes into being gradually, a phrase at a time, a word at a time.  When the writer in the process of revision feels the law of diminishing returns set in, s/he stops editing and asks what the poem is becoming, the nature of its semantic experience and the responses it invokes.  When he judges that the process is done, that it is a product, a crafted result of ideas, plans, surprises, shortcomings, s/he locks it in (though not always “for keeps”) and moves toward the further refinement of varnishing, which can also throw her back to an earlier stage.  It “begins in surprise and ends in delight” as some wag put it.  In that respect the making resembles a dance, a sculpture, even many other “products” which are not considered artistic.  This is the way most of the writers I know see a poem coming together and feed it.  It’s too much an organic and unpredictable process to be called a “record.”

Lerner is also convinced that looking hard and long at A) an admittedly terrible poem (William Topaz [!] McGonagall’s justly obscure “The Tay Bridge Disaster”) and B) a poem mostly written in prose (by Claudia Rankine) tell us more about what poems aspire to and how they fail than anything like a widely admired poem by Yeats or Donne, Bishop or Heaney.  He’s interested in Dickinson, but prefers the poems by her which explicitly address the kind of limitations he finds infecting all poems.  There’s one other aspect of his essay that I want to explore, and I’ll do it now because it seems the most obvious importantly wrong direction of the piece.

A significant source of Lerner’s conviction that Philistine Q. Public hates poetry is rooted in Lerner’s contact with people to whom he announces he’s a poet.  “Embarrassment, or suspicion, or anger” arise because, he believes, there are “tremendous social stakes.”  People expect those who claim the title of poet to be able to do very special things with words, to conjure phrases that go beyond the mundane realm.  But such cannot be delivered on demand, and the old poems are often linguistically too difficult for the speaker and hearer of contemporary American English-cum-textspeak, so resentment sets in quickly.  Jim Dickey used to talk about this, about the suspicion or scorn he received from men on planes when he said he was a poet.  But who brings this on?  Those writers who can’t resist claiming poet as an honor, who half believe that travelers will be impressed by the profession (?) of poetry.

But why not take control of the awkward situation and work toward an understanding?  Say, for instance, “I’m a teacher and a writer” (maybe an editor, too).  Then more specific questions follow: What do you write? Are you published?  How’s that work?  Does it pay well?  What led you to choose this path?   These questions are part of a more directed dialogue, one that can go both ways and opens the door to say, “I write poetry, too” without seeming to throw the gauntlet down.  To reveal to the “civilian” that you don’t claim poetry as a priestly or prophetic vocation is to seek common ground.  It opens the opportunity to explain how poetry fits with rather than conflicts with being a husband, a Unitarian, a Democrat, a daughter, a juggler, a forger, a fisherman.  The writer who hasn’t thought her/his way through this may just be an elitist who can’t wait to point to the laurel crown and desires the mantle as “remarkable,” badge of a “chosen one.”  But after all, poetry has arisen from the world’s disadvantaged, as well as the highly lettered and degreed ones.  Open the discussion with difference between the questioner and the writer, and you doom it to animosity.  Play a different card, and exchange and understanding may follow.  Just imagine the conversation that opens with this self-identification: “I’m a teacher who likes to fish, listen to jazz, write poems, play racket ball, visit art museums and read novels.  I wanted to be a potter, but I was a disaster.  An archeologist, but my undergrad college didn’t offer the major.”  That just might get a different response from, “Poetry, I hated that stuff in school.  Why can’t you guys just say what you mean?”  Or something like, “I’m a poet and don’t know it.”  When I was a callow/fallow young man, I asked Robert Penn Warren what subjects interested him as a poet, and he replied, “Why Rod, only those things which interest me as a man.”  He knew that, even if poetry is your most important calling, it doesn’t have to be on your business card or stitched onto your shirt pocket.  Maybe he also believed that poetry was a way to appreciate at least as much as a practice to be appreciated in itself.






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In a Yellow Wood

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not takenAlthough I pretty much know it by heart (or at least by memory), I’ve never been a devotee of Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.”  Among his shorter poems, give me “Stopping by Woods . . . ,” “Design,” “Provide, Provide,” “The Silken Tent,” “Hyla Brook,” “After Apple-Picking,” “Out, Out – ,” if those last two can be called shorter.  It’s clear that extra-poetic forces run through my enthusiasms side-by-side with matters of the poems’ craft and ambition, and I’m not very trustworthy when it comes to identifying those currents of need and circumstance that shape my taste.  With “The Road Not Taken,” however, I’m pretty sure what extracurricular vectors interfered with my overall love for Frost’s successes and his “mistakes” in that widely beloved piece.

road notFortunately, along comes David Orr’s little book (from Penguin in 2015), which takes the poem’s title for its own and adds the subtitle “Finding America in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong.”  About two thirds of that book holds me in thrall and instructs me, though the remainder of the book, to my mind, loses the name of action, as it explores the nature of choice and self in both serious psychology and the pop variety.  Nothing wrong with such an investigation, but it seems off task here and diverging from the poem as focus and crucible.  And the project of the chapters “The Choice” and “The Chooser” require both more space and a more technical philosophical vocabulary to do justice.

In brief, however, here’s the problem that Orr has cured for me.  Frost’s poem, most everyone agrees, presents a narrator who has come to a fork in the road, deliberated on which one to take, this deliberation extended because one is “just as fair” as the other, they are worn “really about the same” and “both that morning equally lay.”  It’s a more complicated matter than six of one, half dozen of the other, but the traveler plays some tricks with himself, thinking he’ll be able to take the one not chosen another day, while already doubting he “should ever come back” to this place, certainly not this moment.

At this point, the poem has always delighted me.  The tense shifts from past to future, and the storyteller speculates what and how he will report this choice in the future, while       suggesting that he’ll come to believe it made a lot of difference, or none.  So far so good.  But the appetite for codger wisdom and stoic individualism leads many Americans, indeed most non-academics and non-practitioners of the mortal sport of poetry, to embrace the idea that the narrator must have chosen the more demanding path, which shows he’s gritty and likes challenges, wants to blaze a trail.  That’s why so many get the title wrong: it’s not “The Road Less Traveled.”  Enter my inner Puck, who has long been whispering, “These readers are desperate for their bumper sticker slogans to be confirmed, their commonsense American perspective to be rewarded by the most American of major poets who’s offering a little parable to confirm their belief in themselves as pioneers.  What fools these mortals be.”

roadlessbookCertainly the puca and I have not been “fair” to the poet and the poem, for aberrant readings will arise, no matter what.  The poet can influence but not determine how people read.  Usually we call aberrations “misreadings” or hasty readings or incomplete ones, and move on, enjoying the merits of the poem as we see them.  But Orr’s little book offers astonishing evidence that the hoi polloi are in thid case in the vast majority, and they love the twenty lines so much that there must be more to the issue than all this fiddle.  Expert opinions are not the only opinions.  Orr claims, and demonstrates to my satisfaction, that this little hike poem is the most widely known and revered icon of American culture in history, no matter what Marvel Comics administrators might say, or MJ fans (Jordan or Jackson) or Kardashian addicts.  Surely I need to rethink my conviction that the poem’s heart is that shift in tense and the disingenuous assessment that the narrator will tell – well, who?  His heirs, his fans, himself?  All “ages and ages hence.”  In an acorn shell, here’s what I felt the poem was about: after the facts are in, the memory (with ego in the pilot seat) rewrites history to report that the narrator goes the way most people wouldn’t, which is how we create rich lives or histories, become legends in our own minds, how we win.  He knows he’ll lie a little, though what the “that” in the last line refers to – the telling, the traveling, the choosing, the sighing – is ambiguous.

I was for years, with vacillating enthusiasm, irritated that Frost loaded the deck so heavily for inattentive or over-agenda-ed readers to misconstrue and find unwarranted satisfaction by identifying with the speaker, whom they take to be blood-flesh-and-bone (and that sunstruck, windblown inauguration laureate hair) Frost (who does write in prose about a walk in the woods, but it’s quite different, and appears in Orr’s book).  I felt that Frost had made it too easy for the stitchers of samplers and sellers of inspirational posters to use the poem to incite cheers of USA, USA, USA.  Maybe he was just entrapping them to have a little more Frost Fun. But as Orr speculates, old Yankee wit Bob has done something more and better, not provided A) a dead end about choosing the unusual road, or B) a vital line of thought about revisionism, the ego and the urge to glorify one’s own past.  He’s built a poem full of feints, near conundrums and ambiguities, all pulled along by his usual team of work horses, metaphor and theater.  He takes away as he gives.  He offers a poem which can soothe without raising too many questions or can penetrate to the nature of deliberation, choice, memory, but only with the investment of a fiercely attentive reading and the willingness to live with a set of twisty ambiguities.  There’s something to be said for the show dog who can also herd.

So many poems announce their subjects as poetry itself or the making of poems, but most signpostlessof the ars poetica poems that capture my fancy keep the writing business in the subtext, the peripheral, and only seem to be about the making of poetry to people who practice that craft, making it all a pretty crafty business.“The Road Not Taken” may also be about all those “visions and revisions which a minute will reverse,” and I’ve decided to add that to my file of possibilities to ponder.  Is there a way, through subtext, ambiguity, reversal, semantics and so on that the woodkern can take both roads, that a poem can mean in forking ways?

I’ll leave it to those who take up Orr’s book to decide this, and I’m convinced that, if you don’t hate poetry (or maybe even if you do), half of Orr’s book will delight and instruct you, and the other half is not half bad, either.  Beats Tom Clancy.  Besides, it’s full of fascinating information about the literary mob, Frost’s life, the whole question of the crisis of the crossroads, which Oedipus came to appreciate too late.*

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Dilly Blog: Message from the Nostalgia Frontier

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th.jpsimonDear Boss,

I heard that “’Neath” in “The Sounds of Silence” back in the Sixties, and I realized that elf guy Simon was up to something in the neighborhood of poetry, the neighborhood where good walls mattered and lilacs by the dooryard bloomed, Nobodies fessed up and neither farmers nor horses cared about Hubris Icarus falling.  You don’t say “’neath” without you have some secret designs on your auditors.  Like I say, poetry.

That vinyl’s title song was about some hipster who had a dream vision, and he was trying to sound the alarm about zombies, despite the widespread practices of ennui and silence.  Not the kind of zombies that slink about and aim to feast on brains, but the kind that wanted to numb your brain, doze you.  Zombies that talk without speaking and hear without listening.  Dulling zombies, Xanax zombies.  That song was a pretty obvious warning, and I raised my private terror alert level to woodpecker red.

I zoomed in on “The Dangling Conversation” on that same album, and it was more personal with cups of tea and pretty images, but also indifference and superficial sighs.  It all rang a bell, but what really got my attention was the poetry business again – “And you read your Emily Dickinson/ And I my Robert Frost/ And we mark out places with bookmarks/ That measure what we’ve lost.”

emilyI had just gotten free of high school, and I had a kind of suspicious respect for poetry, which I understood not at all (despite some pretty fancy bulletin boards) but knew it was not Sunday School or the Friday night lights, sock hops or fist fights behind the gym, not home ec pies nor organic chem.  Poetry meant to mean something, and I knew from American lit that Bob and Em and Walt were not normal.  Whether on the upside or the downer, who could say?  But they meant to mean right and left, east and west, 24/7.  Her life was a loaded gun, though she couldn’t stop for Death.  Bob liked to traipse off into the woods and bend trees, scare birds, watch spiders (along with Walt) and think of ghosts and strangling marriages.

But what I wanted to know lickety-split was if Elf Simon thought it a waste of time reading Em’s tiny twisty poems and Robert Lee Frost’s Uncle Wiseguy ones with chainsaws, dark and deep woods and apples, snow all over the place.  How do those bookmarks “measure what we’ve lost”?  Do the markers mean the time spent getting that far along through those poems was just wasted, digging a hole to fill it, or do they mean that the puzzles on the pages hint that time spent doing other, unpoetry things is lost, and reading the books should wake us up?  Elf was big on alarms and reveilles.  Just as I was beginning to find some sense in Em and Bob, it hit me that maybe two people in the same room reading putatively great literature (you know Twain n “classics”) and using bookmarks were losing at a pretty speedy rate, pretending to culture but missing it, while they missed each other too, like my mother said, “with your nose stuck in a book.”  But maybe they were catching something, as well.

frostContagious, I guess.  I caught something too and went on to dabble in the poesy racket a little myself, you know, but it wasn’t till I was thirty that I got untangled from what Simon says and learned to stop worrying.  You see (maybe), it had come to me that ole Paul was maybe writing a poem himself, syncopation and images, emotions and all that, with more than one possible meaning hovering in the air over the page without slapping at each other.  But were lyrics and poetry identical, similar, overlapping, twins or kissing cousins?  None of the above?  When Kenny Rogers sang, “You decorated my life,” I knew he’d gone under the bar poetry-wise, as decoration is pretty superficial, and the rest of the song was pointing at something deeper, or trying to.  He wasn’t writing anything nearly as careful as poems were rumored to be.  Well, it was a conundrum for quite a spell.

But relief came when I saw the puck himself on The Dick Cavett (or Civet of something) Show.  If you missed Little Richard’s interviews with all sorts of Mailers, Buckley Juniors, Hepburns, Capotes and so on (even Jack the Kerouac doing a soft shoe routine and singing “flat foot floogie with a floy floy, yeah”) you should make an appointment with Dr. Google and catch up.  Dickie bird was something of a wag and a wit and not very interested in the dieting habits of  date movie ingénues, so he set out on one of the untrodden paths by telling Paul how much he admired the poetry in his sensitive songs.

Get ready for a little shock, which was about 110 and not likely to scorch you too much.  Wise Simon said that he wrote song lyrics, not poetry.  So anybody who wanted poetry should go to Dylan Thomas.  Well, that shook me up, but in a good way.  When I was young and easy in the mercy of his means , , ,” – that lilty vividry and shiver.  Also hard to unsnarl, but rewarding.  He encouraged me to enjoy the work of saying it and listening into it and giving poetry a lot of my late nights at the kitchen table, which keeps me off the streets when I have miles to go before I sleep.
Well, now it’s back to the front lines where I predict the past that’s not dead or even past.

Your part-time assistant and culture correspondent on specious assignment in So-So, Mississippi,

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Novelist Patricia Highsmith: A Quirky Introduction

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strangers movie Until the release of the film Carol last year, I had given little thought to Patricia Highsmith, who was born Mary Patricia Plangman, in Fort Worth.  I had read her novel The Talented Mr. Ripley with interest and mild “guilty-pleasure” enjoyment and thought maybe Graham Greene was onto something when he called her “the poet of apprehension.”  When I saw the film version with Matt Damon as Tom Ripley, I was impressed, though skeptical sometimes of the role luck and coincidence play in the storyline.  Could the cunning protagonist of this picaresque tale really be so perfectly configured for the ruses he perpetuates?  Could he improvise so swiftly, precisely and effectively?  It hardly matters, as Minghella has given us a version of Tom even more villainously seductive (and twisted) than the novelist created, and I was willing to suspend my disbelief.  No matter how sharp are the edges of  his essential “HARM” that press from within the slight camouflaging of Tom’s “CHARM,” I was charmed, intrigued almost (or just barely) to the point of empathy.

highsmith2I did not realize that Strangers on a Train, the novel from which Hitchcock sculpted his famous film, was also Highsmith’s, her first, but it explores a theme or proposition that runs not just through TTMR, but through Ripley Under Water, Ripley Under Ground and Ripley’s Game.  I have not read The Boy Who Followed Ripley, but I expect similar features permeate it.  The abiding motif that moves Highsmith’s people and plots concerns the existence of evil and sociopathic behavior melded into the most civilized of people.  “Good” people like Guy Haines  do bad things; we know that from the media and from Twain’s warning that “virtue is often another name for the lack of opportunity,” but Highsmith is interested in the ways that amoral behavior, right down to regretless murder, can lie dormant in people whose cultivation would seem to leave little room or inclination for smashing a guest with a wine bottle (in the wine cellar) till his legs quit wiggling (a scene clearly nodding to Poe, if not Clue).  Recognizing these elements in action, The New Yorker once called her “peerlessly disturbing.”

price of saltHowever, we are familiar with this kind of story by now because of Hannibal Lector.  All his Mozart and rare merlot fail to mitigate his, well, appetite for vengeance, as well as the thrill of descending ex nihilo into the lives of the guilty and innocent alike.  I didn’t make this connection between Thomas Harris and Patricia Highsmith right away, as Carol (from the novel The Price of Salt, published under the nom de plume Claire Morgan) is not so concerned with this twisted mix, and the villains in that piece are not the focal characters.  Hitchcock’s version of Strangers on a Train is a little off track, too, as he compresses the second half of the novel (the hands too soiled for all the perfumes of Araby to cleanse them, that extended regret bit) and focuses, rightly, on a special feature of Highsmith’s story.

That feature is a kind of moral (and mortal) chiasmus: “Hey, stranger, if you agree to kill my intolerable father, I’ll kill your malicious estranged wife, and the police will never suspect, as neither of us has a motive beyond this confidential and strangers onunlikely pact.”  The problem, of course, lies in the asymmetry: Bruno, the proposer of this vile swap, is one of those cultured and idle (but still boorish, in this case, and off-putting) very rich who are not like the rest of us, and the other is an essentially decent-leaning architect who must be coerced and driven to uphold “his” end of a bargain he never actually agreed to.  The premise is engaging, if only for the narrative structure, and Hitchcock’ s trimming and additions (especially the carrousel imagery) fit the concept nicely.  Highsmith is more interested in exploring what might drive her protagonist Guy (or Everyman?) to fall under Bruno’s spell and how his act might gnaw and abrade Guy’s soul, agenbite of inwit, so to speak.  It’s also hard to fault her vision of the spoiled brat monster who starts the plot in motion.

ripleyWhat does it mean to slip “involuntarily” into crime and out of the moral community?  How do minds in the midst of that transaction operate?  Interesting question, and prominent in TTMR, but less so in the other Ripley books, after Tom has plenty of blood on his hands, a settled life in France, a healthy cash flow.  In the later Ripley books, it’s his involvement with art forgery that interests me.  The counterfeit Derwatts and the conspiracy of impersonations and extravagant lies that foist them onto a somewhat deserving cadre of connoisseurs lead Tom to conduct himself as blithely and conniving as a Bunburying Wilde mischief maker.  But it all runs to leftover stew in most of the Ripley books, as Highsmith is not a careful stylist (too fond of “thriftily” and worse) or a convincing orchestrator of forensic suspense.  The information in the separate books overlaps too much for my taste, but what she is exquisitely configured for are the many delays before the anticipated inevitable other shoe drops.  She provides and relishes domestic details, harpsichord lessons, art chat, gardening, sartorial options, travel pointers and culinary details, plus the stolidly agreeable antics of Mme. Annette, the loyal housekeeper, to keep the reader pondering that old question: where’s the beef?  Or the body?  As Time noted, she is highly skilled at “eliciting the menace that lurks in the familiar surroundings.”  Once Tom ceases to be the ambitious young con artist on the make and evolves to the dragon protecting his trove, he loses zest and novelty, and the questions of his conscience are long ossified to givens.

I also read about two dozen of Highsmith’s short stories, which are mostly anecdotal or parable-like, scenarios almost right for Hitch’s TV series, but Highsmith doesn’t very often render the narratives convergent or epiphanic, and the supernatural is seldom invoked.  They’re quirky and driven by circumstance, permeated with mood but neither moving nor intriguing.  Stories in The Black House and Mermaids on the Golf Course offer more complexity than the other collections, but they still read more like aperitifs than courses.  Still, they’re good enough to demonstrate that writing text for comic books didn’t diminish her cunning.

For those who want to know a bit about the author, she was born in Texas, preferred to live in Europe (England, France, Switzerland) and was an actively gay woman in a time when she must have encountered many obstacles, which did not come close to defeating her, though she was often, according to the dense biography, Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith by Andrew Wilson, unhappy.  It would be hard not to admire her intrepid nature, and her pursuit of the questions and characters who captured her imagination might have made her apprehensive herself concerning the poor bare forked animal.  Her work ethic and dedication to following or breaking conventions according to her own muse, however, were unassailable.

One anomaly among Highsmith’s novels, The Glass Cell (1964), deserves consideration in its sub-genre, the prison novel.  It recounts the experiences of the naïve Philip Carter, who is convicted of fraud he did not commit.  Once released, he finds that the six years in the calaboose have left him more suspicious and violent than he ever imagined.  His creator was a great lover of Kafka, but the transformation of Carter is less allegorical and mysterious and more recognizable.

highsmith owlBefore closing the dossier (though there are more Highsmith novels about, and I can’t say I’ll always be able to resist them), I want to recommend another of her books that stands apart from her oeuvre (which includes twenty novels and a battalion of short stories).  Her eighth novel, The Cry of the Owl, strikes me as driven more by curiosity concerning a lonely man’s marginal behavior than by moral equations and hypotheses.  I actually saw the film in its early and foreign rendition (La cri du hibou) years ago and never even noted the author.  After I read the novel, I Netflixed the English film derived from both the French Canadian movie and the novel and liked it very much, despite some inexpert accounts of gunfights and fist fights.  (Action scenes are not her strong suit.)

The novel is set in the U.S. (like SOAT) but in the East, rather than Texas, and its protagonist and his travails ring, even half a century later, true enough to be unsettling, especially on a dreary night.  And just to remove a needless element of suspense, the title does refer to the folkloric – an owl’s cry predicts something ominous, probably a death.  Considering how many owls I hear where I live and how many people die, it seems a fair association to me, but I’m no folklore statistician nor ornithologist.

The larger structure of the story may remind some of SOAT.  Here, a gloomy and aimless young man begins spying on a young woman, Jenny, who lives alone in a wooded area.  He’s not exactly a stalker, but he derives satisfaction from watching through a window as she cheerily conducts her housework.  No aggression and nothing sexual.  He almost sleepwalking, desperate for something to distract him from his own depression.  She catches him, and with that structural instinct, Highsmith soon reverses the situation, though Jenny’s agenda is more specific than the protagonist’s.  So, the criss-crossing again.

highsmithHighsmith has in Robert Forester created a decent, damaged, sympathetic character who has no interest in transgression but finds himself. for all his dedication to calm and deliberateness, drawn into irrationality, violence, police business, travesty and tragedy.  For all his attempts at meditation and caution, he finds the world given to the Lord of Misrule, and harm follows.

It’s probably no mistake that Robert is reminiscent of Camus’ Meursault; Highsmith was an admirer of the existentialist writers and would very likely have been smitten with both Camus’ signature novel and his play “Le Malentendu.”  But what drew me into the story and held me were her renderings of place, weather, mood, fragile details and Robert’s slow-motion, scrupulous mind, understanding too late how much momentum has gathered and is unleashed.  It’s a novel of disaffection and helplessness, of disguised bad choices and the long memory of bad luck.  A New Yorker critic praised the book for its brand of fear, “the dread of humiliation,” and I was entranced (and shaken in my recognition) by that feature, but I have to admit that I also loved hating Nickie, Robert’s unscrupulous and indefatigable estranged wife.  She’s a sniper with memorable and horrifying skills.  Jenny is far more sympathetic and intriguing, but now and then it’s a treat to have unsympathetic nasties like Nickie and Jenny’s frustrated paramour Greg.strangers movie 2

But it’s time to move on.  I have a ghost story I want to read, another Appalachian novel by Robert Morgan, a big book of Walt Kelly’s Pogo cartoons and Audubon’s Missouri River Journals.  And I plan to be more whimsical and less driven in some future posts.  For now, Sample Highsmith and see if she fits your pistol.  Comments are welcome below.  A demain.

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